Sri Lanka have lost great cricketers to retirement. In times of need, they have coped without marquee players. Injuries are nothing new – you could tweak a groin walking down the street, never mind chasing after a boundary. Disagreements among senior staff and administrators are as common as kadala vendors over here.
Breaking curfew? Gah, it’s not ideal, but everyone does it. Heck, look at England – they were breaking curfews before it was cool. Let’s face it – it’s pretty funny that this is top-level international sport played between two teams with a bedtime. A spinner called for chucking? Ha! Please. Get some new material. Match-fixing? There have always been whispers.
Each have been issues Sri Lanka have had to dodge, hurdle or simply shut their eyes and wear in the face over the last twenty years. Through success and a healthy sense of humour, a tolerance has been built up. There is no way to conjure effective resistance. Even champion boxers, in their quieter moments, wonder if the knocks are worth the belts. And just like the Sri Lankan cricket team – the answer is always yes.
Yet here we are, with Sri Lanka in the middle of the perfect storm containing all of the above, wondering if this is all worth the hassle.
433 Test wickets have gone off into the sunset tucked under Rangana Herath’s belt. Dinesh Chandimal’s injury robs the team of guidance – modest as it might have been – but more importantly their form batsman of the last two years. A disagreement between head coach Chandika Hathurusingha and team manager Charith Senanayake has seen the latter replaced. Lahiru Kumara has gone from highly-rated quick to the third player this year to be turfed out for disciplinary reasons. Akila Dananjaya will have to keep the off-break in his box of tricks after it aroused suspicion in Galle. And suddenly, those whispers are getting louder. Much louder. On the eve of the second Test, Dilhara Lokuhettige became the third former Sri Lanka player in the past month to face corruption charges, after Sanath Jayasuriya and Nuwan Zoysa.
It is enough controversy to last a decade. Yet all this unfolded in the last week, along with a humbling defeat. The blows are coming thick and fast, and Sri Lanka’s 213-run loss in the first Test might be the most painful of them all. Losing a series to an England side with a poor record in this part of the world will compound the misery.
On Tuesday (November 13), Sri Lanka’s training was ‘optional’ and around half the squad took that option. Often the caveat is put in place as a test – the sort a parent puts to a child, presenting the illusion of choice when there is really only one right course of action. Yet even the regimented Hathurusingha appreciated that, just for one day, there needed to be room for players to work out what is best for themselves.
Of course, Suranga Lakmal was in attendance in a captaincy role he, in his own words, “never expected”. It is one he will have right through to the end of the series. One that is not lost on him. Chandimal is still on hand to bear the brunt of what criticism may eventually befall beyond this series, but rarely has a stand-in skipper been had more responsibility.
Lakmal’s first order of business was to back-up the decisions made by those above him. Messages, he believes, have been sent to Kumara without singling him out: “This can happen to any player – senior of junior. If they break the rules, we’ll take action”. Lakmal has already put his arm around Akila Dananjaya and assured the spinner of his place in the side.
Even if Sri Lanka have got their wish for a spinning track in Kandy, the batsmen need to dig deep and improve. Lakmal has faith: “No one goes to the middle trying to make a low score. I’m trusting that a lot of things will change in this Test.”
And on the lack of senior-match winners in the Sri Lanka team and the turmoil engulfing the country, he gave no room for excuses. One strong performance changes the complexion of the last week. Even in victory, England still have queries over the order of their batting line-up that could escalate to severe doubts with a couple of poor sessions. There are clear frailties to expose and Lakmal recognises as much.
“Just because we’ve lost a game, that doesn’t mean we’re mentally low. This is a vital match for us because we’ve got to stay in the series. The stuff happening around the team – like the change in manager – is out of our control as players. Our job is to do what we can to win on the field.
“That’s how I want to take my team forward.”
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